Students know themselves better than we do: Recommendation edition

I teach high school, but until last year, I did not teach a class filled with mainly juniors. However every year I still get asked to write between 5 and 10 college recommendations. This year, I was asked to do more. I have a process, and it works for me, but it’s not efficient yet. Probably because I have this tendency to be loquacious and undisciplined when I write. This post is not about that process.

I wanted to share something I’ve started doing, which might be like a “duh, obvious!” thing that everyone does… or maybe it is going to be “oh, that’s such a great idea! why don’t I do that?!” moment for people. Who knows. But since I’m consumed with recommendation writing (more accurately: procrastinating recommendation writing) I figured this is the time to post it.

I used to have kids write letters of recommendations of themselves. I would send them this email to explain it better (after I explain it in person — because I do not write letters of recommendation unless a student sets up a time to meet and asks me formally and thoughtfully).

As I told you in person, I’m more than delighted to write a recommendation for you. As I told you, I ask everyone I’m writing a recommendation for the same thing:

When you have all your colleges picked and the forms gathered, will you give me the forms paperclipped to stamped and addressed envelopes? It would be good to have them at least two weeks in advance of when you want them sent out. That way I can do them all in one fell swoop.

Also, when I write recommendations, I usually ask students for two things: (1) things you want me to highlight in your recommendation [math or non-math related], and (2) for you to write a sample recommendation for yourself. Why? Well simply put, it is this: recommendations become strong recommendations if there are lots of specific details/specific instances/stories. And you know things I wouldn’t know — like if you formed a study group or something. Don’t feel like you need to be humble. Just write it honestly and with confidence.

For (2), the more specifics you have, the better my recommendation can be. You know your own experience with me, with math, much much better than I do. The more details you can give me about that (e.g. “I remember helping students X, Y, and Z each time before a test” or “I remember asking Mr. Shah for more difficult problems to work on…” or “I remember one class where we did X and I remember thinking ‘wow, this is…'”), the stronger the recommendation I will be able to craft. Even if there was a specific instance where you felt things were hard and frustrating, what you pulled through learning about yourself/about math? Or even how you feel about math, and if these feelings changed over time?

Those are things that will help me craft something really wonderful for you. I mean, of course I can craft something wonderful already, but I want it to be extra wonderful (!).

I got a lot of good mileage out of this. I wanted kids to write their own recommendations because I wanted them to focus on what was important to them, without me getting in the way. They had free reign to write about what was important to them. (I also secretly was happy that it showed them what a challenging thing they were asking me to do.)

The rub with this… The kids who were more abstract thinkers, who were good at reflecting, would do a good job and produce something I could use. Something that would inspire me on how to frame the kid in the letter. Often times I would get a juicy quote or two that I could snip out and use to quote the student themselves. But then there were the kids that just either didn’t understand what a letter of recommendation was (understandable), so it would be garbage, or kids who didn’t know what to write about and couldn’t deal with the openendedness (also very understandable). I’d say the latter kid was more common than the former kid.

So inspired by my colleagues at my school, I stole and adapted a questionnaire they asked kids to write on. And I think this year I hit a pretty good iteration of the questionnaire.

(.doc version)

I make sure to emphasize when we meet in person the reason for the questionnaire. I explain how details and stories make solid recommendations into really strong recommendations, and how their words help me bring them to life. Most importantly, I tell them that I want them to know that I don’t presume to know them or their experiences better than themselves. I value them enough to say that they know themselves better than I will ever get to know them. And so this is my way of honoring that. (Though I’m sure I’ve never quite said it that way.)

I tell them to not do it in one sitting, but to really think about it and do it well over a few days. And that comprehensiveness and completeness and thoughtfulness is really important — because it will make their recommendation better, but also importantly, it shows me the their work-ethic and the awesome student they are who are willing to go the extra mile. I then say the same thing in an email I send to them with the questionnaire attached.

This year I have gotten the most amazing set of responses back from this iteration of the questionnaire. I have so many quotations I want to pull and include. I’ve learned so much more about my kids than I ever knew — there is so much depth to their worlds that come through.

In about half of the recommendations, I already go in with an idea of what my “thesis statement is.”


1. There are certain students as a teacher that you feel so lucky to have in your class. These are students who have something unique about them, that set them apart from the class-at-large. This year in X Class, Y is that student. I am a teacher at Packer Collegiate Institute, a small, independent school in Brooklyn, NY. What Y has going for him is something I don’t see often, even among the advanced students: an insatiable curiosity (which many have), and the independence and drive to actually do something with that curiosity (which very few have).

2. In this letter, I hope to share with you the wonderful kid that I have gotten to know, and talk about the two very significant ways she has transformed herself in our X Class. The first is with Y’s ability to work in groups; the second is with Y’s passion for mathematics. The thing I personally was most proud of Y for was the complete revolution she underwent in her conception of (and her interest in) mathematics.

What’s awesome for me is that I tend to get total confirmation about my framing of kids after I read their responses. I feel pretty awesome that I got to know them as well as I did.

But for the other half, I either haven’t gotten to know the kid well enough to frame them, or I struggle with coming up with the most positive framing possible. After reading these questionnaires, I never struggle on how to frame these more challenging recommendations.

I gather these questionnaires, my narrative comments, my gradebook, and reflections I have kids write twice during the year (as a way for me to take the temperature of the class and check in) in a packet. These are my source material for my recommendations.

Then I procrastinate.



  1. Sam, I think your process is thoughtful, thorough, and serves your students VERY well (as you do). You mentioned that you adapted a questionnaire that was shared by your colleagues; would it make sense for your school to formalize that process somewhat so it was standard for all teachers writing recommendations? In this way, ALL students could benefit from the thorough job of recommending that you have crafted.

  2. Hi Wendy, thanks for your comment.

    I think that so many teachers have so many different ways to do recommendations (some like having conversations with kids and take notes, some might like things less formal) that I worry about formalizing things. I personally would hate for someone to tell ME how to do things like recommendations. But I shared the questionnaire with the college counselors, so they can share that out with any teachers that might need help/advice with writing recs!

  3. As a college professor I have to write recommendations for students going to grad school or applying for faculty positions. I require the students to write a draft (in 3rd person) for me. I then edit the draft (sometimes lightly, sometimes extensively) to produce the letter. Not only does the draft remind me of all the things the student did, but it also reminds me of how good (or bad) their writing is, which is often a crucial component of how strongly I should be recommending them.

    This requirement also eliminates a lot of the students who ask for recommendations just because they need *someone* to write for them—since they have to put in some effort, they only ask me if they think that the effort will be worthwhile.

  4. Thank you for sharing this great process. This is my 2nd year teaching, and as someone who taught our juniors last year and have many of those students for an upper elective this year, I know the season of recommendation writing will hit me hard for the first time.

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